The modern drum set is used primarily in jazz, rock and pop musical settings. The drum set has varying components that differ according to each drummer’s style and desirability, unlike other instruments (a guitar has six strings, a trumpet has three valves, etc.) While the components may vary to each musician’s liking, each drum set generally has the following standard pieces:
A bass drum, usually 18″ to 24″ in diameter. This drum is played with the foot, which strikes a pedal attached to the drum.
A snare drum, which may vary from 12″ to 14″ in diameter and 5″ to 6.5″ in depth. This drum has wound wires on the bottom head of the drum, which produces the sharp, snare sound when the top head is struck with a stick and the vibrations resonate through the shell of the drum.
The tom toms are of varied width and depth, customized to the drummer’s particular choice. A standard kit has 1 to 2 tom toms mounted on the bass drum or a separate stand, but this number can grow considerably depending on the musician.
The floor toms are like tom toms except that the floor tom is of greater width and depth, therefore requiring legs that allow the drum to stand on the floor. A standard kit has one floor tom, however this also varies greatly depending on the drummer’s preference.
Cymbals are used to create various effects within musical situations. The ride cymbal usually has the sound combination of “wash” (underlying overtones) and stick definition (articulation of notes). The hi hat cymbals are placed on top of one another and can be opened and closed by a pedal functioned by the foot. Crash cymbals are used at points of special emphasis such as at the end of a fill or a transitional movement in a song. Specialty effect cymbals such as splash or China cymbals are also available.
Each drum and cymbal is supported by metal stands of corresponding size.
The musician plays the instrument sitting down, as this allows for the feet to control the hi hat and bass drum pedals while the hands play the drums and cymbals. Because all four limbs are being used to play different rhythms simultaneously, the well-versed drummer must have “independence”, a concept involving ambidexterity. The drums are played by sticks or, in lower volume settings, by brushes.
High-end quality drum shells are made from maple. Maple evenly distributes frequencies and makes it ideal for any musical application. Birch is another wood used in high-end shells. Birch generally boosts high frequencies and low end “punch”, creating a more cutting, punchy sound. Lower end drum shells are manufactured from mahogany or composite shells. Each drum shell goes through some type of shell molding process requiring compression, adhesive formulation, heat and cylindrical pressure. Thin shells generally are sensitive, resonate highly, and have a very full, open sound. Thick shells are not as sensitive and resonant but do allow for greater volume production.
In the early part of the century, drums were generally played with calfskin heads. However, these heads were subject to atmospheric changes, particularly moisture, requiring tuning changes to be made by the drummer during live performances. In the late 1950’s, new heads were manufactured from plastic and have since become standard equipment on drums. This synthetic head is unaffected by room conditions and is easily tunable through the use of tuning lugs on the side of the drum.
The history of the drum set is undeniably linked to jazz. The development of the bass drum pedal in the early 20th century allowed for one drummer to play the snare part and the bass drum part at the same time. As time went on, drummers experimented with more additions to their existing kits. The first real drum sets can be traced back to Duke Ellington’s Sonny Greer, who expanded the set to include tom toms and various cymbals, as well as other innovators such as Chick Webb and Zutty Singleton.
The popularity of the drum set increased when Gene Krupa came on to the scene with the Benny Goodman Band. In 1937, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, a combination of a popular song and a drum solo, became a hit tune and thrust the drum set into the limelight within contemporary music. After Krupa, Buddy Rich exploded into musical halls in the 1940’s with his brilliant flair, amazing dexterity, and incredible speed. Rich has remained the most influential, popular, and revered drum set artist of this past century. It was at this time that drum manufacturers such as Slingerland and Ludwig produced patents on equipment that would foretell the innovations within drum set percussion. The 1950’s and 1960’s was an era of great creation and experimentation in jazz, and drummers were a large reason why. Drummers such as Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and a young Tony Williams were driving the rhythms of noted jazz artists such as Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and John Coltrane. By the late 1960’s funk and rock were making its impact and drummers such as Keith Moon (The Who), John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), and James Brown’s drummers thrust the role and the image of the drummer to another level. After the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Zildjian Company was backlogged for years of cymbal orders after thousands viewed drummer Ringo Starr on television.
During the 1980’s the use of live drummers was diminished somewhat as click tracks and drum machines were used by many recording studios, but important drummers such as Stewart Copeland (The Police), Neil Peart (Rush), Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl still contributed outstanding musical work. And at this time, drum equipment expanded even further, allowing drummers to have numerous choices in equipment models and finishes. The drum set continues to remain an essential ingredient for any successful musical group (coexisting with electronic technology in many cases), and another generation of drummers will surely bring even more significant contributions to music in the new millennium.